Photo: Adam CC BY-NC 2.0
Developments in Cuba
After the revolution in 1959, Cuba was ruled for fifty years by Fidel Castro, who has enabled Cuban communism to outlast both the extensive sanctions of the United States and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Since 2008, Cuba has been led by Fidel Castro's brother, Raúl Castro, who has attempted to overcome the country's financial problems through reforms towards a market economy.
The Cuban revolution of 1959 was a result of broad popular discontent that had accumulated over many decades, culminating during Fulgencio Batista's time as the country's leader. In 1959, Batista was overthrown by Fidel Castro's guerrilla army, beginning a long period of Communist power and sweeping changes in Cuban society.
The Cuban constitution establishes that no parties other than the Communist Party of Cuba are allowed. Fidel Castro was First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba until 2011 after having been in power for more than 50 years.
The Cuban economy was long based on preferential economic agreements with the Eastern Bloc. The fall of communism in Eastern Europe had disastrous consequences for the country, which had to start paying world market prices for the oil it imported from the Soviet Union at the same time as Cuba received less for its sugar exports. In five years, Cuba's GDP fell by between 35 and 50 per cent.
Slow market economic reforms
In 2008, Fidel Castro's brother Raúl assumed the post of Cuban President. Raúl Castro's time as head of state and head of government has been characterised by attempts to get Cuba's ruined economy back on its feet through cautious reforms towards a market economy. The regime has opened up for Cubans to conduct private activities in just over 200 occupations, mainly within the service sector. The private rental of homes is allowed, companies may employ labour, and self-employed persons can apply for credit. The exit permit requirement for the majority of Cubans who want to travel abroad has also been abolished.
But privatisation is not moving at the planned pace, and many cuts in the state sector have had to be postponed. In 2016, 500,000 Cubans were working in the private sector, of whom almost one fifth were self-employed and the rest employees.
Relations between Cuba and the United States have been characterised by the embargo that was gradually introduced by the United States in the early 1960s. In the 2010s, the Barack Obama administration introduced the easing of these sanctions. Cuban-Americans may now travel to Cuba without restrictions, the maximum limit for remittances to Cuba has been removed, and U.S. telecommunications companies may enter into agreements with Cuba. The two countries' interests sections have been upgraded to embassies, and the United States has removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Difficult questions that remain are the compensation for expropriated American property in Cuba, the return of the Guantánamo base and the very lifting of the embargo, which can only be done by the United States Congress.
Export of healthcare personnel an important source of income
The embargo has meant that Cuba is excluded from international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Today, Cuba's largest revenues consist of exports of services in the health sector (30,000 Cuban doctors and other healthcare personnel work in Venezuela), tourism and remittances. In 2015, three and a half million tourists visited Cuba.
The Cuban health and education areas have long maintained a high standard, but there has been significant deterioration in recent years for financial reasons. Many of the best medical specialists leave the country because of the low wages.
Life expectancy is among the highest in the region, and the literacy rate is very high. Unemployment is low, but most Cubans have very low incomes and lack the opportunity to themselves improve their life situation. A lack of means of transport and goods, high prices on imported consumer products and overcrowding create tensions in society. Ration cards for food are still in use.
Cuba is a one-party state, and organised political opposition is not permitted. Arbitrary interrogations, brief periods of arrest and harassment with respect to dissidents and opposition figures are common. Cuba has no freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom of association. All mass media are state property. The spreading of "counter-revolutionary" information incurs severe penalties. Both the availability and use of the internet is restricted by legislation. The country has signed the UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but has not yet ratified them.
Around a hundred political prisoners were released from Cuban prisons in 2010–2011 in an agreement between the Cuban regime, the Catholic Church in Cuba, and Spain. A further 53 political prisoners were released in 2015 as a result of negotiations between the United States and Cuba.